After the rain: what lies ahead?

High Weald Sandhurst

High Weald Sandhurst - Credit: Archant

Why the government needs to work closely with landowners on a long-term water strategy for Kent and the south east

The flood waters are now subsiding and with Easter approaching we can reflect on how the extremely wet winter has affected our countryside.

The effect on farming and horticulture will be severe. The impact of having land that you cannot get on to carry out normal cultivation and drilling of spring crops, and the loss and damage caused by flooding to winter sown crops, can’t be underestimated.

The same can be said for the problems of livestock farmers with unusable pastures and additional feeding and housing of sheep and cattle. The Environment Agency will protect life, property and finally land, but the land is seen as somewhere to hold back floodwater. Yet if coastal flood defences are breached, the long-term effects of saltwater on food production is enormous; ground affected by salt can produce very little for several years.

Another downside of all this water is a false sense of security that there is no shortage of water in the south east. Any potential postponement of long-term planning for sustainable water supply, which is essential for our growing population, businesses and commerce as well as food production, is a real concern.

Kent and the south-east urgently require a long-term water strategy. This may involve increasing storage capacity and encouraging landowners to have reservoir, marsh land or other methods of holding water which in turn will help with flood control.

The rivers of Kent are wonderful habitats for a huge range of wildlife as well as the beauty of their landscape. But the pressure is on as more water is demanded by human activity. What a tragedy it would be if we destroy these fragile habitats already under pressure because of lack of rainfall.

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Managing water is essential and requires long-term planning and sensible environmental management. We must ensure that the times of plenty are not seen merely as floods to be engineered away as quickly as possible but a vital resource to be conserved for the times of shortage.

The water companies, which rely on ground water or reservoirs, are of course very happy to see them full ready for the summer. This then questions the need for more winter storage for farmers and land managers to ensure that they have the water when they need it to irrigate their crops and ensure full supermarket shelves.

The building of reservoirs is expensive and not taken lightly by farmers and landowners, but the first hurdle they must overcome is planning.

Many object to their creation but with sensible landscaping and placement they can fit in to the wider environment with very little effect on the landscape.

The Government recently closed a consultation on how the future of water abstraction should be set up. The CLA lobbied hard nationally and regionally to ensure that agriculture has its fair share of the water abstracted so that the Garden of England can flourish with top-quality crops, fruit and landscape.

While these changes are not due to come in till the 2020s, the CLA is concerned about some measures. The amount of available water within a river catchment is worked out taking the amount used away from available resource, which could mean agricultural land has no water, rendering it useless for vegetable production, for example.

The CLA is pressing for such an approach but long-term planning is not a priority to the politicians who work in five-year cycles or for commercial developers focusing on quick returns and job creation rather than long-term investment.

Government needs to work closely with landowners on a long-term water strategy for Kent and the south east, ensuring a sustainable water supply to support people, businesses and the environment both in times of flooding and in drought. n